• Bidisha Bhattacharya

With the Tea Consumption in India falling by 30%, the crumbling down of “Tapris” seem unstoppable

“Bhaiyya ek chai”, the usual afternoon line a tapri situated outside any office was familiar with, somehow evaporated amidst this lockdown, and with it, the Bhaiyya as well. Stepping out into the street from their respective offices in order to share that milky tea with a hint of ginger or cardamom was an Indian office ritual. Be it masala, adrak, tulsi, extra milk, green, sulaimani, sugarless for the health-conscious souls or the famous cutting chai - you name it, the Chai-wale bhaiyya had it. No matter where you work and what you do, the one thing common to 'work cultures' across Indian states is having a cup of tea with colleagues. 

That is the beauty of Chai, the hot beverage that brings people closer. However, these very stalls that witnessed endless office-related gossips and personal life discussions more than anything else, reflect an unfathomable deserted look today. 

Born on the 24th March, this year, the lockdown compelled organizations to move to a “work from home” approach in order to curb the spread of Coronavirus. As a result, workplaces closed down, employees accustomed to working from home, while the beloved tea shops and stalls pulled down their shutters. 

Even though states are recuperating from the virus and opening up gradually, people still prefer working remotely from their homes. Even the ones who do visit the office premises abstain from heading to the chai stall fearing socializing and keep themselves distanced instead. 

India experienced a massive fall in tea consumption by 25-30% in the last 6 months, the reasons primarily ranging from reduced availability of the beverage to a sharp decline in out-of-home consumption at roadside tea stalls, restaurants, cafes, hotels, and even factories. Going by the data given by the Federation of All India Tea Traders Association (FAITTA), out-of-home tea consumption accounts for nearly 40% of the total domestic sales of the beverage. The average monthly domestic consumption of the same goes around 90 million kg of which out-of-home consumption accounts for 36 million kg. The April-May,2020, witnessed a whooping loss of around 72 million kg of tea consumption.

The Indian Tea Association (ITA) has pegged a revenue loss of Rs. 2,100 crore for the industry in Assam and Bengal between March and May 2020. The total loss of production in these two states, as a consequence of factories shut due to lockdown, quantify to around 140 million kg. This disastrous plummet is not the only reason behind aggravating the financial stress of the tea industry. Even though the input costs have been rising for the past five years, there has been no concomitant rise in prices leading to a higher loss than expected. 

A larger factor in this stands worth mentioning. In the days following the first lockdown announcement, the country witnessed a mass outflux of migrant workers from the cities. Daily wage-workers, such as street vendors, laborers, construction, and domestic workers- most of whom came from the rural areas of India- saw their jobs and chance to earn money in the urban areas evaporate. A significant portion of them were forced to travel several hundred kilometers on foot to get to their hometowns owing to the unavailability of transport. It was a dire and desperate situation for those who lived hand to mouth on their wages from the cities. Some never made it home, dying on the way there. 

Data states most of the street-food vendors hail from the underdeveloped states dependent on agriculture, namely, Rajasthan, Bihar, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh. An average chai and food seller in Gurugram is expected to be earning around 25,000 rupees a month with a usual influx of about 450 customers a day. Unfortunately with the first phase of lockdown, the income plummeted to a huge extent witnessing a massive fall in the number of customers to a meager three or four.

Most of the tea stalls in India are small, overcrowded, and barely make it to the list of clean kitchens. Even if the lockdown relaxes and workplaces open up, the new cleanliness norms will drive up the overhead cost for every chaiwala. They will now have to mandatorily ensure disposable cups, plates, and more dustbins if they want their customers to feel safe. In order to balance out the increased overhead capital, the prices are expected to rise. 

COVID-19 affected not only the tea-seller but also the tea-drinker. Psychologists have come up and expressed their views on this matter. Taking planned breaks is extremely important during work as 80% of the time employees are glued to their screens. A tea break refreshes one’s mind along with seeing new faces, socializing, and talking about something apart from work even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. With the “work from home” system in place, employees hardly meet people or have anybody to vent about office issues and this can be a Problem!

While tea still remains a staple drink for most households in India, however, its maker seems to be balancing himself on the edge of a cliff. Let’s hope this plight gets well addressed and adhered to.

This article was also published in bidisha.scrollstack.com

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